Elizabeth Barrett Browning on Love and the Seductions of Honesty
By Maria Popova
For two people to be honest with each other about what is most difficult, even when truthfulness comes with a razing edge of sorrow, is a hard-earned privilege measured by the magnitude of their love for one another. In thinking through this recently — or, rather, living through it — I was reminded of Adrienne Rich’s beautiful sentiment about how relationships refine our truths: “An honorable human relationship — that is, one in which two people have the right to use the word ‘love’ — is a process, delicate, violent, often terrifying to both persons involved, a process of refining the truths they can tell each other.”
That delicate and violent process is what unfolded between the poets Elizabeth Barrett Browning (March 6, 1806–June 29, 1861) and Robert Browning (May 7, 1812–December 12, 1889) — two of the most celebrated and influential writers of the nineteenth century — during their electrifying courtship, carried out in secret. During it, Barrett penned the sonnet whose memorable opening line has permeated culture so profoundly in the century and a half since as to now border on triteness: “How do I love thee? Let me count the ways.”
Having first fallen in love with each other’s poetry, the two had many reasons for reservation about transmuting mutual admiration into romantic involvement, beyond the usual insecurities, self-doubts, and fears of deficiency that take root in the hearts of prospective lovers. Barrett, bedeviled by acute spinal pain and ill health since childhood, had spent seven years writing in a darkened room, nearly immobile. When the two poets finally met in person, she was approaching forty — well into spinsterhood by the era’s standards. Browning, six years her junior and less famous, considered himself “no longer in the first freshness of life” and had for a number of years prior “made up [his] mind to the impossibility of loving any woman.”
In one of their early flirtations, collected in The Love Letters of Elizabeth Barrett and Robert Browning (public library | free ebook), Barrett makes a stunning invitation to unmitigated honesty as the sole gateway to love — stunning in its bold defiance of the era’s mores of formality in epistolary etiquette, in the fact that Barrett calls herself a “man” in the letter, and in the courage it takes for any human being, in any era, to invite the difficult truths that pave the way for authentic connection.
Barrett writes in February of 1845:
Don’t let us have any constraint, any ceremony! Don’t be civil to me when you feel rude, — nor loquacious when you incline to silence, — nor yielding in the manners when you are perverse in the mind… And let us rest from the bowing and the courtesying, you and I, on each side. You will find me an honest man on the whole, if rather hasty and prejudging, which is a different thing from prejudice at the worst. And we have great sympathies in common, and I am inclined to look up to you in many things, and to learn as much of everything as you will teach me. On the other hand you must prepare yourself to forbear and to forgive — will you? While I throw off the ceremony, I hold the faster to the kindness.
For months, Barrett tussled violently with the hazards of surrendering to love, oscillating between allowing Browning to approach with the unconditional love he was offering and pushing him away for his own sake — she implored him not to get involved with “a confirmed invalid through months and years… liable to relapses and stand on precarious ground to the end of [her] life.” But the invitation of love prevailed. In September, she returns to truthfulness as the ground base of connection and writes:
Believe that I am grateful to you — how grateful, cannot be shown in words nor even in tears … grateful enough to be truthful in all ways.
Barrett and Browning wed exactly a year later, eloping to Italy and incurring the wrath of Elizabeth’s father, who disowned her. For the remaining fifteen years of her life, the Brownings’ marriage drew nothing short of awe from a great many of their friends, who remarked in their private letters and journals upon this relationship marked by uncommon reciprocity of devotion, respect, admiration, and adoration. The pioneering sculptor Harriet Hosmer, for whom the Brownings became second parents during her formative time in Italy, would later describe Robert as “the most devoted husband the world has ever seen” and would remember that the couple “lived in a world of their own, happiest when alone therein.”
Complement this particular portion of the wholly resplendent Love Letters of Elizabeth Barrett and Robert Browning with Alice Walker on what her father taught her about the love-expanding power of telling the truth, then revisit other stirring love letters by Kahlil Gibran, Vladimir Nabokov, Virginia Woolf, John Keats, Albert Einstein, John Cage, Franz Kafka, Frida Kahlo, Hannah Arendt, James Joyce, Iris Murdoch, Margaret Mead, Charlotte Brontë, Oscar Wilde, Ludwig van Beethoven, and James Thurber.
Published July 7, 2017